Virginia Groups File Lawsuit to Extend Voter Registration

By Brian Carlton, Arianna Coghill

October 13, 2020

Three groups ask for 48-hour extension, supported by the governor and other officials.

RICHMOND-The U.S. District Court will decide if Virginia extends voter registration. On Tuesday night, several voting groups filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Elections, Commissioner Cristopher Piper and the State Board of Elections. Their goal is to extend Virginia’s voter registration deadline by 48 hours. 

“Unless the voter registration deadline is extended to Oct. 15, 2020, plaintiffs’ members and others will be deprived of their fundamental right to vote in the Nov. 3, 2020 election,” the lawsuit states. 

Virginia’s voter registration ends at 11:59 pm on Oct. 13, as per the Virginia Code. However, a Chesterfield County construction crew cut a fiber cable while digging before 9 am. That incident shut down information transfer between the Commonwealth Enterprise Solutions Center and all online voter registration systems, as well as the Department of Motor Vehicles and other statewide agencies. Commonwealth officials installed the 10-gigabyte circuit this spring to deal with increased broadband needs due to COVID-19 and a shift to remote work.

The backup system can’t handle the same workload, so all online voter registration systems were offline until 3:30 pm. Even now, there’s only a temporary fix in place. 

With that being the case, Virginia residents lost at least seven hours of online registration. That doesn’t mean registrations didn’t take place. We documented how several cities and counties used paper and pen in order to register people. 

“Voters must not be silenced due to technical difficulties,” said Deb Wake, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, one of three groups involved in the lawsuit. “The League is stepping in to make sure voters are given the opportunities they deserve to exercise their right to vote in this important election.” 

A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday at 9 am. Judge John A. Gibney, Jr. will hear the case in the Eastern District of Virginia.

State needs lawsuit, groups say

Along with the League, the lawsuit names New Virginia Majority Education Fund and the Virginia Civic Engagement Table as plaintiffs. Members of each group said its important to give everyone a chance to take part in the election.  

“Our democracy is strongest when we all have an opportunity to participate in our free and fair elections,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority. “The system wide failure impacted Virginians across the Commonwealth, preventing people from registering to vote for the first time or updating their registrations, and prevented many voters from casting a regular ballot during in-person early voting. To ensure that every Virginian has an opportunity to participate in our democracy, it is imperative that the court provides the requested relief for those affected.”

Tuesday’s situation reminded Nguyen and others of 2016, when the system went down on the eve of the registration deadline. Most of these groups sued then as well.

“All Virginians who are eligible to vote have a right to make their voices heard in our democracy, and the state has an obligation to ensure that all eligible voters have that access,” said Irene Shin, Executive Director of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table. “We’re not asking for anything more than for the courts and the Board of Elections to fix what was broken today. In order to right this wrong, the Board of Elections must grant an extension of the deadline.”

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed a brief on behalf of the defendants Tuesday night. In this case, the Board of Elections and Department of Elections support an extension. The brief clearly says the defendants also recognize the outage prevented some residents from registering successfully.

“We need to make up for the time lost today,” Herring said in a statement after filing. “We have 21 days until the most important election of our lifetimes and I want to make sure every eligible Virginian who wants to vote can.”

Governor, other groups support lawsuit

Because the Virginia Code includes this Oct. 13 deadline, Gov. Ralph Northam can’t change it with an executive order. The governor acknowledged that in a press conference Tuesday afternoon, saying he would fully support a court-ordered extension. So did multiple other officials and groups. 

The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP called for an even longer extension. The group wants a 72 hour extension of the voter registration deadline. 

“In an election season where over 1 million Virginians have cast their vote, it is imperative that all eligible voters have the ability to to register, change their address, and registered voters can check their voting status,” said the VSC in a statement. 

Previously, VSC has urged lawmakers to create policy that would help disenfranchised voters. Unfortunately, this technical error could setback countless Virginians. While people can still register in-person at the voter registration office, many adults would likely still be at their jobs after these offices close at 5 p.m. 

“This is a typical workday for many citizens in Virginia,” said Robert Barnette, president of Virginia’s NAACP chapter. In an interview with Dogwood, he also said some people don’t have access to printed forms. “Updating your registration online is an easy process that many Virginians have used for years. This is an important election. We want everyone who’s qualified to vote able to do so.”

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